Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Before the Time

When I was a child, my mother would let me help her out in the kitchen. Sometimes we would do complicated things like bake a cake, but usually they were simple tasks like chopping onions. It didn’t really matter what we did. I just wanted to be standing on a chair next to her, helping with whatever she was doing. One of the chores I considered a special treat was to put the icing on the cinnamon rolls, but my enthusiasm and excitement always made me impatient.

Is it time yet? No, son, we have to put them in the oven first. Is it time yet? No, son, they have to finish cooking. Is it time yet? No, son, they need to cool off just a little bit first. Is it time yet? Yes, son, it’s time.

In today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 8:28-34), Jesus sailed across the Sea of Galilee, and, as soon as he got out of the boat, he was met by two demoniacs. According to Matthew, these were fierce individuals. They had interrupted the lives of everyone in the town. Like a long-running construction project on a major thoroughfare, everyone in the community had to steer around them. They would torment anyone who came by. And, if they were waiting by the seashore, it probably meant that a major part of the community’s life had been cut off because of the havoc they brought to the area. No one could pass by them.

When they saw Jesus, they cried out to him, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Before the time. That caught my ear and eye this morning. Before what time? In the gospel accounts, demon spirits are often given insight into who Jesus really is. They can see his spirit—his divinity, which has come down to earth in the incarnation. When God comes to live on the earth, it is a sign that all things are being fulfilled. The time means the end time—the ultimate time. And Son of God here on earth carrying out the divine mission is a sign that that time has come. But, of course, it also hadn’t come yet.

As the story continues, Jesus did what he showed up to do—he casts the evil spirits into a herd of swine, who rush down into the sea and drown. Then, the townspeople come out to see what happened. The herdsmen told them how Jesus had freed the demoniacs from the spirits that tormented them. They relayed to the town how Jesus had finally set them free from the one thing that plagued them. And what was their response? Please, go away. We don’t want you here. You’re not welcome here. We’re not ready for you. Go somewhere else.

I’m baffled by their response. Why would anyone shoo away the one who set them free—who did such a wonderful thing for them? Is it because the time had not come yet?  The town’s unwillingness to welcome their savior is as surprising as it is expected. The time had not yet come. But it also had. Jesus was doing end-of-the-world stuff before the people were ready for the world to end. Jesus represents the fulfillment of all of God’s promises, but, as wonderful as that is, we aren’t ready for it yet. It’s too scary. We’re not willing to accept it yet. We need just a little bit longer.

Jesus shows the world that God is already breaking into it in ways that challenge our readiness. No, I’m not talking about being ready for heaven before you go to sleep at night. That’s the kind of “thief in the night” that it’s easy to be ready for. I mean the fact that God has come to turn everything upside down—to bring joy to the downtrodden, to set the captives free, to give life to those who are broken, to pull the rich down from their mighty thrones and to lift up the poor and lowly. Are we ready for that? I’m not. But I should be.

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